Animals Feast Like Us on Thanksgiving, Except Way Healthier

Feed me: Happy the Hippo, a longtime Franklin Park Zoo resident, opens wide in a 1925 photo.
Feed me: Happy the Hippo, a longtime Franklin Park Zoo resident, opens wide in a 1925 photo. –Boston Globe

This Thanksgiving, while most of us plow through roast turkey, stuffing, and myriad pies, some of our neighbors will be enjoying a meal on the opposite end of the health spectrum: kale, lettuce, celery, collard greens, and carrots, along with a smattering of unbuttered popcorn and peanuts.

No, these neighbors aren’t self-denying vegetarians or fitness nuts who refuse to cheat. They’re the gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo’s Tropical Forest, and their Thanksgiving meal, says lead zookeeper Nicole Smith, won’t be much different from their usual diets.

“We keep [the animals] in good shape,’’ Smith said. “Anything high in sugar, and anything that’s not good for us, isn’t good for them.’’ (Heart disease, in fact, is the number one killer of male Western lowland gorillas.)

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Decades ago, when animal nutrition was far less of a study than it is now, Franklin Park Zoo animals celebrated Thanksgiving with their own extravagant feasts, though the Zoo itself was closed to the public.

Monkeys, for instance, once enjoyed bananas, oranges, cabbage, potatoes, and onions. At a 1924 Thanksgiving meal, they were served a “marvelous stew of onions, garlic, carrots, and other things,’’ according to The Boston Globe.

Happy the Hippo, born in Philadelphia in 1918 and brought to Boston in 1922, was treated to apples and carrots on Thanksgiving Day 1925.

However, Smith tells us that Inocencio, the Zoo’s two-year-old pygmy hippopotamus, doesn’t like apples all that much, and is content with sweet potatoes and his usual helpings of alfalfa hay.

“Most of them are creatures of habit,’’ she says.

Feed me: Happy the Hippo, a longtime Franklin Park Zoo resident, opens wide in a 1925 photo.

The special Thanksgiving tradition hasn’t been carried out in recent years, according to zoo officials. But from what we’ve seen, the animals are on much healthier, more varied diets than ever before, with every diet tailored and re-tailored to suit an animals’ nutritional needs. What they eat comes from the same sources as the fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets, and a new organic garden on zoo grounds provides fresh staples like romaine and carrots. Keepers cook up a storm in the zoo’s kitchens, testing out various herbs, spices, and preparations (raw versus cooked) for their animals.

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Not all animals can eat so liberally, anyway: one of the zoo’s ring-tailed lemurs, for instance, is diabetic, and in true animal solidarity, none of the other ring-tailed lemurs get much in the way of treats. As Jackomo, the zoo’s giant anteater, slurps up nutrient-packed insect pellets from a tube using his 18-inch long tongue, Smith tells us about the days when the anteaters were fed uneven diets of ground meat and other miscellany.

“They were just surviving then, but not thriving,’’ she says. “We really want to make sure they’re as healthy as possible.’’

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